It's all about me


An alternative title (or a subtitle) to this blog entry might well have been My Adventures in Anosmia. Anosmia for those who might not know is the lack of ability to smell. It might be caused due to trauma, a bad infection (I’ve heard) and may be temporary or permanent. In my case it was congenital, that is to say I’ve been anosmic since birth, and therefore the condition is permanent. It has something to do with the way the olfactory grooves in the brain were formed or not formed, I believe. I just didn’t or couldn’t get into the groove, one might say.

Despite being born anosmic, neither I nor indeed anyone around me cottoned on to the fact for many years. Even now, even folks closest to me, including my Mom forget and will hold out something to me and say something like “isn’t this lovely?” or “smell this,” and I’ll obligingly sniff. The habit is deeply ingrained because it wasn’t until I was past twenty-one when a doctor pointedly asked me about my sense of smell and I thought about it, that I finally learned for a fact that I actually couldn’t smell. The fact was confirmed by a series of medical tests…

Now that I think about it, there had always been hints, but only in retrospect do I recognize them as such. For instance, I remember reading about an experiment  in which a blindfolded person was asked to identify a piece of fruit–apple or pear–fed to them while the other one was held to their nose. According the to book most people would identify the fruit by smell not taste, but no, not I. At the time I was puzzled because I always unerringly identified the fruit I was eating, whereas most others gave mixed responses. I was evidently relying on other clues such as texture to make my guess. Then there was the fact that I always needed to do a taste test (or sometimes a curdle-in-hot-water test) to figure out if  milk had turned. And my enthusiasm as a teenager for the perfume Chanel No. 5 was a mere peer imitation. Fact of the matter is that no matter which perfume was held to my nose, all I got from taking a whiff was a cold rush of air through my nostrils! More often than not, it was the color of the liquid or the design of the bottle that determined my choices.

Unlike blindness, which is to sight or vision what anosmia is to the sense of smell or olfaction, anosmia is not easy for most people to understand or identify with. Indeed, more often than not people have not heard of the word, and when I tell them I can’t smell, their reaction, after perhaps the assumption that I have or have just had a cold, is  one of puzzlement combined with a vague sense of disbelief. Then when I explain, the first question almost is always is “How do you taste?” And aside from occasionally being unable to resist a comeback along the lines of “Delicious” or holding out my hand with a “want to find out?” (Only if I’m fond of the person), I try to  explain that my sense of taste is not impaired. Or at least it is not diminished in the sense of the range of foods I can discern and enjoy. I think this ability might be attributed to the fact that I learned to taste  in a different way than do most others, My nerdy/geeky scientific self thinks it might be a compensation by the trigeminal nerve for the inactive olfactory nerves/groove.  But back to the question: not only can I taste, but as friends will attest, I love variety in my meals, and am a pretty good cook… who can often re-create or at least simulate dishes based on taste alone!

It was in fact my ability in the kitchen that led certain musically savvy roomies of mine to give me the nickname that prompted the title of this post. Beethoven the composer famously started to loose his hearing sometime in his twenties and was almost completely deaf for the last decade or so of his life.  (A quick aside… All this biographical information incidentally was checked out on Wikipedia). As I said before, I didn’t lose my sense, never having possessed it in the first place, but the analogy was apt in any case, and the compliment much appreciated. That my activity in the kitchen was often accompanied by strains of a four-handed arrangement of Beethoven’s Seventh played by my roomies adds an additional layer of sweetness to both the nickname and the memory of it. (#51).

What does it say about my ability to abide by the eponymous resolution of this post, when it took me three tries to even get the spelling of the word right in the title? Not, as I imagine many people might think, that I’m out of practice typing–because I’m not not–but perhaps it’s a Freudian slip because I don’t want to make a resolution I may not keep?

So what’s this resolution? Well inspired by a similar one that I just finished reading about in a different blog/articles website, it is simply to contribute something to this blog once a week. At least once a week I should say. Regardless of what else I write or not, or what I’m doing, I think writing here just once a week is not an un-keepable goal. I did start something like this based on a book a few years ago, but other than putting down the prompts for several in the drafts section of this blog, it didn’t go very far. Not because I think I owe anyone anything really.. early on when I created the blog it was with a promise to myself to be guilt-free for not writing. I stand by that sentiment, but this once-a-week exercise is more of a discipline-building one. Just to prove to myself that I can. No other conditions or stipulations about topic, etc etc. Just write… at least one entry per week here, in my peregrine chronicles, which means it cannot be about food really, since that topic I reserve for my other site.

So where am I? I just took a quick read back at my blogs over the past two years, and actually have to admit that the record wasn’t too shabby compared to the previous three. But almost exactly 3 years ago, I entered something about the flight of this peregrine, and reading the optimism of that post, makes me want to weep. Because optimistic is certainly not the way I’d describe myself any more. Exhausted, disheartened and yes, even defeated is how I feel more often than not.

Having said that though… not all is bad, even now. Though jobless for two years now, I’m in Madison Wisconsin on a short fellowship to work at the archives of a scientist who features in my book (that at least is still progressing even if the move to India turned out to be a jump from one frying pan into another or to be ethnic about it from the Korean barbeque into the kadhai). Madison is a lovely town–not quite big enough to merit the label city–with lots of lakes and the University Union building sits on one of them and I’ve spent a lot of my waking hours here.

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I recently caught a TV screening of the new(ish) version of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and it reminded me forcefully of the power of the word. It also drove home a point that I make constantly as a historian, namely that the context in which a book is read and the state of mind of a reader goes a long way toward what one will take out of a reading, or remember. For instance, There was a description in Gatsby toward the end, which I had missed or rather not noticed particulary when I read the book, but given all that I’ve been through in the past couple of years jumped out almost immediately this time. It was a description of Tom and Daisy Buchanan and it went like this:

They were careless people, Tom and Daisy— they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made….

Replace careless with callous and to me that passage sums up  a couple of former colleagues (or for that matter the entire institution) as nothing else can. For I know first hand what it is to be subject to the “smashing up” described by F. S. F. Nearly two years later, I’m still picking up, or attempting to pick up, the pieces while those callous Tom and Daisy equivalents go on blithely with their lives, wrecking still others, no doubt. I could go on, I suppose and wallow further in dregs of bitterness (to pick up the words of another American classic: “I am big, I contain multitudes”) but I think I’ve already given them more rent-free space in my blog and brain than I should have.

I just mailed in my absentee ballot yesterday. I hope it gets to its destination on time. It’s important because as I said in an application yesterday, this year has to be the most tension-fraught election of my lifetime.

2016 is the third time I’m voting in absentia, though from a different state this time because I have a mailing address there. Who did I vote for? I will confess, that for a while there I did think about abstaining because of my disenchantment with the candidates and the process,  but decided that voting was not simply a right but a duty. As is within my constitutional rights, however, I will keep my choice secret. But seriously, are there really any prizes for guessing my choice? I am after all, a thinking brown individual, with mostly liberal and granted, somewhat chaotic, political leanings. I will out myself and say that I have until now always voted democratic because while I believe in and wish that we in American had a genuine multi-party system, that desire may be something I won’t get to see realized in my future during my––Oh! there’s that word again––lifetime.

Anyway.. this mini-diatribe was a reminder (to myself and to anyone who may care) that the Chronicles still live. I remain as peregrine as ever: in the past ten months I’ve wandered the world  in pursuit of information, employment and family affairs but am rather discouraged and disheartened (much as I am about the political situation really) but will elaborate on this (maybe) in a different post. For now I’ll sign off with a reminder to all Americans that regardless of your leanings.. get out there and VOTE come election day, which is on Tuesday, November 8 this year.

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A recent reference to my post alluding to Terry Pratchett’s marvellous creation, Luggage (that wondrous trunk of sapient pearwood) led me to look it up, especially because I now have ones that looks like it could have filled the role! Mine is some 3.5 ft long and a little over a foot wide and high, and is quite beautiful with metal buckles and strap-like ornamentation that is not brassy but mottled and burnished. How I love that word, burnished. It’s so evocative of its meaning. And my trunk is even made of mango wood, which was one of my choices in my original post.

Only thing, alas, is that my beautiful trunk is not sapient. I keep hoping it will become so, and follow me around the world (rather than me cart it) but wishes don’t translate to reality. If they did, I might have had it go do something truly nasty like bite  chunk out of a certain slimy hypocritical somebody’s callous leg, since one of the truly original and funky things about luggage is that it would deal with those who intend harm to its owner. I know I said in my original post that I didn’t have anyone in that category, but things have changed since … But intentions in either direction can only pave the way to hell, where I am not, at least not yet. Despite efforts to send me there. I am, as Elton John sings, still standing.

Back to my un-sapient luggage though. It’s my prized possession  at present, from my evergreen favourite shop, Cottage Emporium,  along with its more conventionally proportioned mate from Rajastasthali (still in storage). One of these days I will upload a pic. Until then… happy travels all, and if I don’t make it here before, I wish everyone a safe and wonderful 2016.

Screen Shot 2015-05-10 at 8.16.49 AM … H.P. Lovecraft apparently, or so said an online statistical writing analysis piece of software, on three occasions. Two pieces of writing were recent academic book reviews, one about Darwin and the other about scientific styles. The third was a peer-reviewed paper. An excerpt from my food blog, however, has me likened to Cory Doctorow, whom I’ve never read! And my trip down memory lane to my childhood bedroom seems to recall David Foster Wallace, who to my delight is described as having “a mercurial mind that lights on many subjects.” Like a changing accent then, apparently my style, language etc changes depending on the forum I’m writing for, I adapt.

I wonder how to feel about the fact that my academic writing is consistently likened to a writer of pulp horror fiction. Does the software simply regard all academic material as horrific? Or should I take this analysis as a compliment, that my writing, even about technical subject stuff has a wider reach and appeal? That would be nice…

Most of all I think the food I cook reflects my sense of adventure, my willingness to try (almost) anything, my love for novelty and variety, and I fondly hope, creativity and innovation, although those last two might be derived from my cooking. Over the years it – my cooking – has also come to reflect my peregrine nature, as I’ve picked up knowledge about ingredients, cooking techniques and tastes from different parts of world. A recent example that comes to mind is the use of shiso (shisu?) aka sesame leaves – which I’ve only really seen used in Korean and Japanese food – as an ingredient in tadka (finishing a dish with a couple of teaspoons of oil heated with spiced and herbs) for daal.

It’s strange that I can’t think of more to write here.. at least about the main topic at hand. After all, the subject matter of the prompt (from a later chapter in Deutsch’s book) touches on the two things I write about the most: myself and food. So why then have I drawn a blank after that first paragraph, which flowed quite naturally from my finger-tips? Maybe because at some level my cooking is an expression in and of itself. It just is, the way I just am. Writing about the relationship between the two feels like the way I’d imagine cooking for a restaurant would feel like. It takes the joy out of the act, imposing rules and forcing into boxes, what is for me a flight of fancy – whatever I fancy – using the ingredients I can find in the fridge, freezer or pantry cupboard. A long-ago creation I was reminded of last weekend when I visited New Haven and the kitchen I created it in, was a low-&-slow baked Swedish meatballs (from IKEA) in a Kashmiri-inspired gravy of yogurt, ginger, fennel powder spiked with red chilli (cayenne) powder… And another memory that just sparked was of a salad  I conceted while visiting my friends Shomik and Renu during their stint in China, in response to their request for something that was not Chinese: Norwegian pickled herring dressed with Indian mustard oil and fresh cucumbers.

I suppose these reminisces also bring to light another way in which my cooking reflects who I am.. my being a people’s person, for so often the food I have cooked has been for more than just myself. I like to cook for others, an audience if you will, though not always as a demo. but then don’t most people?

Okay.. the verdict is in.. bored enough to get distracted to look at other things, I better put this post to bed and potential readers out of their misery.

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